We’re having dinner in the kitchen.
The kitchen with the wood chairs with the yellow vinyl cushions, thighs stuck to them and that noise those thighs make when they peel off, like suction cups or farts, and an ambulance in the distance, roaming and moaning.
I sit closest to my father. He sits at the head of the table like a king with a Pepsi and asks (after he farts loudly), “Who did that? Jennifer, was it you?”
You can’t smell the fart. The flounder in the oven overpowers everything else. My mother uses a salad dressing to marinate it–the whole house smells like fish and not in a bad way either, in a “this is what brings the family together” kind of way.
We sit at the brown table with the yellow or orange vinyl seats and look out at the overgrown yard with the rusty striped swing set, the picnic table, the house in back owned by Gayann whose husband would die shortly after my father.
My father has a high-pitched laugh, like a sheep. A cackle after he asks, “Who did that? Was it you, Jennifer? Rachel?” and the there’s silence and we eat fish.
There are dishes in the sink, patterned plates, long foggy glasses with my father’s lip marks and the remnants of Pepsi. The island in the center of the kitchen has not been built yet. That will come after my father dies.
My mother will use most of his life-insurance money to remodel the kitchen right before we leave the house forever.
The back door is closest to the table where we eat as if to allow us an escape route, if needed.
The ambulance is coming closer and when I say, “It’s coming here,” everyone looks at me like I’m crazy, or I’ve farted, a half-humored, half-annoyed expression. “Why would it be coming here?” floundering mouths want to know.
It’s like how you know before you know.
It arrives at our house four minutes later. I run up into the hallway hamper and hide amidst dirty underwear and T-shirts. I pull the lid over my head and wish for an escape route. I wish to be back in my room on the day when my dresser fell over on me. I wish to have never been rescued from that fiasco. A small voice under the drawers growing smaller and smaller until it disappeared altogether into the carpet. Back into the earth like it was never a thing in the world.
“Are you sure you didn’t call an ambulance?” the driver asks my parents.
We are sure.
“Well, then. Our apologies.”
A week later, the same ambulance back at our door to take my father’s dying body to the nearest hospital in Pennsauken, New Jersey.
No flounder that night but doughnuts the next morning.
I think about that night a lot, how I knew the ambulance was coming for us. Call me Magic, if you want. I won’t object. Who doesn’t want to be called Magic? Was it magic, or do we always know before we know?
When I missed my period in September, I knew I was pregnant but still, when the stick said PREGNANT I nearly fainted. I grabbed at the counter, with all my makeup and lotions strewn everywhere, to save me from falling onto the bathroom floor, or more aptly, from falling into nothingness, since that’s what I feared when I saw the word “pregnant.” I would become nothing.
I was under that dresser again, having climbed up the drawers until it toppled over on me. The counter did save me from hitting the bathroom floor, and yet, I knew. I knew the minute my anxiety started to increase, although I told myself it was the fact I had just gone off my antidepressants and my brain was trying to recalibrate itself. I clutched the counter and at the same time was back under a wooden dresser crying for help. Someone help me escape from here! Help?
Don’t we always know and isn’t that in itself some sort of magic?
I’m not particularly woo-woo, but it felt wrong that I couldn’t connect with the baby inside of me. I tried. I closed my eyes and sat quietly and put my hands on my stomach. I said hello. I cried. I tried to imagine myself a mother buckling babies into car seats. I tried to feel something. I tried to do a meditation although that failed miserably and I ended up playing on Facebook. I tried to write but language evaded me. I was under a dresser in my bedroom with a meek little seven year old voice and the power of language was stuck there with me. I could speak only a few words: I’m pregnant. I’m scared. I’m pregnant. I’m scared. What kind of essay could I write with that?
Maybe a poem? I tried that too.
I’m not ready.
It was useless. I could do nothing except grip corners of furniture so I wouldn’t collapse.
Four years after my father died, we were living in Santa Monica, California. My mother was married to a red-haired man with a hairy chest named Carl. When Carl called me from the beach to tell me that he lost our dog Monet, I ran the eight blocks to the edge of Santa Monica, barefoot.
I stood in Palisades Park and looked over the cliff to the water. It was dark and the trashcans on the sand started moving. They became blurry with night. Each trashcan looked like Monet.
There he is! No, there he is! Wait! There he is. I see him!
That night often smears in my mind with other nights, and sometimes, with mornings.
How easy it is, I often think, to be two things at once. A trashcan becomes a dog. My mind made it so. Just like that.
One morning, I wouldn’t walk Monet before school when Carl asked me. I was running late. We started arguing. I told him to shut up then ran to my room in our condo.
Carl punched a hole in my door and then in my thigh.
My own father had punched a hole in his and my mother’s bedroom door which stayed there until the day we moved 3,000 miles away.
The hole Carl punched was deep and at 12 years old, I thought that if I stuck my hand in it that it would come out the other hole, the one my father made, 3,000 miles to the east and four years in the past.
Monet found his way back to our front door the next morning after Carl lost him at the beach on his nightly leash-free run. We never understood how he’d made it back, how he crossed the Pacific Coast Highway, but we didn’t question it. “It’s like magic, he found his way home,” we laughed.
I didn’t cry when my father died. I turned down the doughnuts and to this day will not eat one.
When Carl died I was eighteen years old and one week shy from graduating high school. I was underweight, starving, freezing and miserable. I was going to start NYU in the fall, which was amazing considering that I barely even graduated high school—they didn’t like that I had been absent more days than I had been there. I used to park my car illegally in the teacher’s lot, my Volkswagen Fox, and I’d escape the grounds if I’d even bothered to come in at all.
My mother and I flew out to Santa Monica in June of 1993 to watch Carl’s ashes scattered into the sea in Malibu. On his belly, his brother rode out on a surfboard and we all walked to water’s edge to throw rose petals as he scattered ashes. I started to cry and couldn’t stop. I threw the red and pink petals into the Pacific and shouted, “Take it back! There! Take them all back! Take it away!”
Each wave would bring the petals I’d thrown right back to my wet ankles.
I shook there on the sand, both because I was freezing and because I had let something come undone inside of me, something I had been carefully guarding for years. Once I opened it, it wouldn’t close.
We had moved back to New Jersey after my mother divorced Carl in 1988. I zippered up my pain and eventually found a way to starve it to death. I shrunk during my late teenage years. If I started to feel something, I would eat my own pain until it was gone. I also ate seaweed, grapes, and laxative tea.
When I started spotting, I knew something was off with the pregnancy, even though all my Googling led me to believe that up to 70 percent of women bleed. But you always know, right? I got more blood work done in a five-day period than I’d ever had done before in my life. Two ultrasounds later and the ob-gyn says “Ah, there it is,” and I both know and don’t know what it is.
It is an ectopic pregnancy. Here’s a shot in your ass. If the pain gets severe go to the ER. Come back in a week and get more blood work. Your hormones have to drop. Understand?
I am sure it was more eloquent than that, but I was lying on paper with my pants off. I was stunned, and although I thought I was listening, I knew I had floated away. I was in a hamper. I was under a dresser of drawers. I was there and not there.
“But I’m getting on a plane in a few days and will be gone for over two weeks,” I said.
“Get the blood work done wherever you are.”
And that was it. Gone.
My husband and I went for sushi. I had a glass of white wine, because I thought, I can now, hey, that’s something, and then I panicked and called the doctor’s office because I what if the wine negated the effects of the methotrexate and I died?
I was existing in extremes.
We ate our fish and I went home and half-slept for hours since I had to teach a yoga class that night. I half-dreamed of beds with no sheets on them and how awful that feels against your skin, and I dreamed of a dog I had when I was in middle school named Monet and the way he smelled.
I wanted to sub out my class, but I was about to miss fifteen days and couldn’t fathom missing any more. Besides, I couldn’t feel anything. I thought I was a person in the world moving along, eating fish, getting shots in the ass, telling people to lift their leg and pull it through for a warrior one pose, but I wasn’t sure. I was there and also not there. Like magic.
I taught the class, and people came up to me after to ask, “Are you okay? You seem sad. You don’t seem like yourself.” I felt guilty, like I’d let them down and needed to explain. I said, “I’m fine, just tired.”
When I arrived in Lenox, Massachusetts to be the guest speaker at Canyon Ranch for the week, the pain was so bad that I reverted to Google despite knowing how very bad it is to Google anything medical. What is methotrexate supposed to feel like? How do you know if your fallopian tube is bursting? Does wine cancel the effects of the shot? Can you die from an ectopic pregnancy? How bad is the pain supposed to be?
I stayed up the entire night weeping with pain. I tried putting my legs up the wall. I cursed. I begged. I took my clothes off and then put them on again. I sweated. I shivered. I put pillows under my legs and then flipped my body so the lump of pillows was under my head. I sat up. I kept hearing the words back labor and was sure that was happening, even though I wasn’t in labor. Or was I? I tried to lie down.
The morning came, and I didn’t know how to tell if I was still alive except to start talking. “Hello, I’m here. Hello, I’m a person in the world.”
The next night I emailed my regular doctor rather than my ob-gyn, since I have a close relationship with him. He has been my doctor for over sixteem years. I emailed him at 4:27 a.m. EST to ask, “If I go to sleep, will I die?”
He wrote back (not surprisingly), even though it was also late in California. He is dedicated and hard-working. He told me I wouldn’t die, but he said that it was time I considered going to the hospital since the pain was so bad and he was concerned.
“You seem anxious. Are you always this anxious?” the ER nurse asked me when I started to cry after she couldn’t get a vein for my IV.
Only when I am in the ER in a place far away from home. Only when I think I am dying. Only when I have an ectopic pregnancy.
I didn’t say anything. I just let the tears fall from the corners of my eyes onto the linoleum floor. I counted them until the anxiety medication and the pain medication took effect and then I stopped counting. I exhaled. The pain was gone.
They wheeled me into a room to get an ultrasound. I was relieved that the technician wasn’t rude like the ER nurse. I wanted to hug her but couldn’t, because I was lying down and because she had some kind of camera wand up my vagina. But still, I wanted to hug her, not for necessarily being kind, but for holding me there, in place.
The friend who came with me told me later that she had cried while I was getting the ultrasound because she had never seen a uterus without a baby in it. I couldn’t see the screen since my head was too far away but even if I had, I wouldn’t have cried. I felt nothing.
I fell asleep, and when I woke, I was back in the hospital room. A nice doctor with a beard and a heavy-set nurse were there and they were telling me things, of which I caught only Percoset and You’re going to be fine.
About a week after that ambulance came to our house in 1983, I stood by the doorjamb in my parents’ bedroom. My father was propped up on two yellow pillows. If I knew that it would be the last time I’d see him, I would’ve made him change the sheets. They were hideous yellow with brown twigs and flowers, and in all my memories, they are present. Father, mother, sister, sheets.
I would have also made him change the channel. M*A*S*H was always on. The coffee by his bed, cold, cream coagulating at the top.
There must have been a knowledge in me somewhere, like a bone you didn’t know existed until you learned it’s name. Femur? Oh yes, I have a femur. There it is.
I must’ve known because my memory of my father, that last memory with the coffee and the sheets and M*A*S*H, is sad before it should’ve been sad. The dread in the room was heavy, like the show on the television—dark, army green, a war somewhere, death close by. But still, it’s a comedy, I think, although back then, in 1983, I only knew that because of my father’s laughter. I took his cue and laughed even though I hated the show. I hated what I didn’t understand. The bell, the bell he rang for my mother when he wanted something. “Barb! Bring me a bowl of chocolate ice cream. Bring me a Pepsi. Barb!”
Why the bell? I wondered, laughing along, even though it scared me.
I still find bells horrifying—jarring, tinny, interruptive.
“I hate you,” are the words I say. The last words. Hovering in the air by the TV before they hit my father’s ears and kill him.
I can hear his voice sometimes asking “Who did that? Jennifer, was it you?” like he used to in the kitchen.
It took me a long time to miss my father. I refused to let myself acknowledge his loss or my own pain, so when I finally did, it was a flooding. I found myself floundering, flopping all over with no real sense of who I was supposed to be or where I was supposed to put all this pain.
I plugged it up quickly and moved on. Years after his death, I remembered how he’d quiz me nightly on each city’s hockey team and their names. I now only remember the Philadephia Flyers, the “Broad Street Bullies.”
After his death, I began to think of myself as a Broad Street Bully. I would be tough. One puck wouldn’t knock me out. Ice? I could handle it. I could handle anything. I would win the Stanley Cup no matter how many losses I had suffered.
It’s hard to comprehend being pregnant and not pregnant at the same time. It’s there but it’s abnormal. It’s dissipating now that we’ve given you this cancer-killing drug. It’s shrinking. It’s there and not there. It’s hard to understand that your body can make something that can come to life but that can also kill you.
The dictionary defines ectopic as occurring in an abnormal position or in an unusual manner or form. How different is that from how I live my life, anyway? Why can’t this pregnancy survive? I occur in an unusual manner, and yet, here I am, a person in the world.
I wonder if there’s been a mistake, but I realize that like the ambulance that came in 1983, the week before my father died, that it wasn’t a mistake.
It was just early. The timing was just a little off.
Timing is an invented thing anyway.
How many places we are at once, all the time. Here I am in a kitchen with my father, here I am under a dresser that’s fallen on me, here I am in the bathroom with a blue stick in my hand, here I am with blood streaming from my veins in a hospital in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
Here I am: no longer pregnant. Not a magician. No longer bullying myself.
Here I am, climbing out from under a chest of drawers, scrambling to make sense of the world, no longer willing to starve my pain out. Here I am, a person in the world, who when my father’s voice says, “Who did that? Jennifer, was it you?” I can finally respond.
Yes, it was me. I am here and it was me. I am alive and it was me. And the pain that flourishes like a threat will hurt like hell but then it will be over. And it will begin to heal. And it will have always been better to feel it than to bury it under a chest of drawers somewhere in the ’80s.